Sunday, August 30, 2015

I Love You Just the Way You Are (Kind of)

Billy Joel, 1977, "Just the Way You Are"

We're supposed to love our children unconditionally, right? But then, at the same time, we're supposed to mold them and make them the best possible versions of themselves. It's here where I am stuck.

I've exhausted myself and those around me by saying things to my sweet girl like, "try might like it." I might be talking about eating a green bean or climbing on monkey bars. For all of the wonderful qualities of my precious girl, "adventurer" is not one. She's a change-resistant creature of habit and she comes by it honest. If I find a dress I like, I buy one in every color and sometimes go back and buy a second of the same color for when the first one gets stained or worn out. I like to find restaurants who have something I enjoy and then I repeatedly go back to that same restaurant, order the exact same thing, and when the stars align, I get the same worker person who learns me and my order. That's the epicenter of my comfort zone.

This summer, I went on an adventure day with my Girl Scout Troop. We hiked and canoed and did archery and all kinds of fun, outdoor activities. The leader of the camp explained (to the girls, mostly) about the day's activities and how it was kind of up to each girl as to how far she went, how far she pushed herself, and she held her hands up to demonstrate comfort zones. Making a circle with her hands, fingers touching, she described this as your comfort zone. "Inside here," she explained, "are things you do all the time. You could do them with your eyes closed. You enjoy them or at least know how to do them." Then she pulled her fingers apart where the hands still formed a circle, but her fingers no longer touched. "Here," she went on, "is just outside of your comfort zone. This is a fun area. It's where you're a little scared but you're having fun learning something new. That's where we want to be today." Then she stretched her arms over her head and made a big circle and said, "now this is when you're really scared. This is when you're walking on a trail and you see a mountain lion." Oh crap. That's one of my slightly irrational fears -- death by large cat -- I wonder if I need to be worrying about that today? Wait, the woman's still talking. Focus.

If everyone else's comfort zone is the circle you make by making two half moons with your hands and connecting them, my girl's comfort zone is a ridge on a finger tip of just one of those fingers. She likes to explore and try new things, but it has to be under the exact right circumstances and on her own time.

I can remember when she was a toddler and we'd taken her to Chick-Fil-A or McDonalds.....some horrible petri dish filled with fried foods and germy play lands. The centerpiece of the play land was a giant, plastic climbing tower. She had the physical ability to crawl and climb - many tiny heart attacks at home involving a bookcase or wobbly stool attested to the fact - but we quickly found out her confidence wasn't as strong as her legs. As other kids whipped around her, some using her as a stepping stone, scrambling up the tower like spider monkeys, there our girl calmly sat on the first level, busying herself, content to climb and explore no further. "Good girl," we encouraged. "Now go to the next level. Can you do it?" "Can I do it?" Yes, probably. Will I? No. Not for another six months. Now, quit talking to me like a puppy.

Little did I know this was just a precursor. The most recent incident happened this weekend. Last week, we caught wind that, now that she's in middle school, she's eligible to run for student government. At first, there are just two positions -- president and something else. Later, they bring in the better known executive quartet comprised of president, VP, secretary and treasurer. To run, you have to fill out a form of intent, get a few teachers' blessings, have decent grades, get some of your friends to sign and declare their support of you, and give a speech in front of the entire school division.

Excited by this new school year and new opportunities, we asked her if she was going to run. It was met by a lukewarm response, at best. We've had lots of practice at this and have a whole arsenal of tactics. First up, the nonchalant approach. When that doesn't work, we try sharing an anecdote, a story from one of our own childhood experiences. Next, we appeal to common sense and reason. Then we get mad. We let our voice rise to a weird level and feel our faces get red. Finally, we're apologetic but pleading at the same time. I kept thinking, "if we give her time, she'll come around." Yeah, right. Exasperated, she finally said after my final attempt at coercion, "I just don't want to do it." 

And it was there that I was looking in a mirror. I saw a version of myself being pushed by my own parents, teachers and friends into a direction I didn't want to go. I felt my heels digging in. And I felt terrible. I felt terrible for pushing her. For not being supportive of her. For not only not protecting, but actually hurting her feelings. For making her feel small. For making her feel not good enough. For making her feel less. If God can accept us just the way we are, why can't I?

So, I backed off. I still don't know if I did the right thing. And, to be honest, most days, I'm just keeping it between the ditches parenting-wise. I've always said I just want her to be happy and healthy. Anything else is just icing on this cake of life. But I need to remind myself (a lot) that it's her who gets to decorate her cake. Whether she dumps a jar of sprinkles on the top and calls it a day or decides to go to France to study under a master p√Ętissier, I've gotta remember that it's ultimately up to her and I just need to be supportive.